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No job? We don’t want you!

By Cynthia Tucker One of the odd facets of a strange political season has been conservatives’ insistence that the government shouldn’t lend assistance to struggling Americans who are out of work. Despite a brutal labor market, with five unemployed workers for every job opening, Republicans and their tea party allies have opposed extending unemployment benefits. Sharron Angle, a Nevada tea partier running against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, has said the government needs to be out of the unemployment business. ’People don’t want to be unemployed. They want to have real, full-time and permanent jobs with a future. That’s what they want,’ she said recently. Angle is right about that. Despite the claims of so many in Congress that extending unemployment benefits tends to make people lazy and less inclined to look for work, most jobless workers want nothing better than a paying job. They crave the financial security and sense of self-worth that come from work. But what are workers to do when they find that employers refuse to hire those without jobs? What happens when one of the burdens that the jobless must bear is a stigma that comes with unemployment? Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Dan Chapman found that several employers are openly discriminating against the jobless, insisting they will only interview applicants who already have jobs. In Monday’s AJC, Chapman wrote about companies posting job openings with warnings such as this: ’IF YOU HAVE NOT WORKED SINCE 2009, DO NOT APPLY!’ That’s not a new phenomenon. When I was just entering the labor force, my parents told me, ‘It’s easier to find a job when you have a job’ and ‘Don’t quit a job until you have another.’ That folk wisdom suggests that employers tend to look askance at applicants who seem unreliable, irresponsible or hard to please. If you’re jobless in a good economy, a manager might consider you a risk. But what about a roiling economy that shuts down entire businesses or lays waste to entire departments? Are you a poor prospect because you didn’t foresee the bankruptcy of your employer? Do hiring managers really believe that 15 million jobless Americans are without pay checks because they are all lacking in up-to-date skills or unwilling to go the extra mile? I’d actually heard about this stigma against the jobless several months ago from a friend who works as a human resources manager for a technology firm. He told me that his firm was having trouble filling vacancies because the company didn’t want to hire anyone who was already out of work. The attitude persists despite a tax break Congress provided earlier in the year to companies who hire the unemployed. And it’s doubly hard for the older workers ‘” who now constitute the biggest segment of the long-term unemployed. They’ve already found their resumes unanswered by employers looking for younger and cheaper workers not yet afflicted by the age-related ailments that tend to raise health care rates. During the 1990s, a robust economy pushed the unemployment rate to below five percent ‘” ensuring work for all who wanted it, pushing up wages and encouraging Congress to adopt welfare reform. There was less reason for a generous government safety net when private sector work was plentiful. But this is a very different era. There is little more that President Obama and Congress can do to encourage companies to take a more realistic view of a difficult economic landscape. If managers insist on painting the vast numbers of unemployed as losers, Congress has an added obligation to provide a reasonable safety net.

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